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October 19, 2004

I’ve had a long-term love affair with maps. But it goes beyond that.

If I could sum up what makes me truly happy in a single phrase, it would be this: the pursuit of knowledge. Unless I’m challenging my mind or expanding my horizons, I feel like I’m wasting time.

I find myself continually attracted to products and services that offer a sense of exploration. I have been in love with maps since a very early age, and an atlas is an essential for my desk. (I also spend a lot of time poking my head in various nooks and crannies around whichever city I happen to find myself in, but that’s a different story for another day.)

So when I find new ways of exploring data I feel strangely compelled, and spend lot of time just clicking around and seeing what there is to see. Here are a couple of my recent favorites.


You’ve probably heard of Wikipedia by now. If not, the idea is an Encyclopaedia Galactica that anyone can edit. The combined knowledge of the human race in one place, cross-referenced and hyperlinked; it’s a frighteningly comprehensive resource that recently passed one million articles.

The cross-linking is what makes Wikipedia work. When a link or a search lands me on a page there, I often get sucked into clicking around, and in a throwback to the early days of the web, I find I’m actually surfing the content. It’s been a long time since I’ve done that willingly. Also a time-sucker is clicking the ‘Random Page’ link in the left-side navigation a few times to find a starting point, then surfing from there.

Although you’d think Wikipedia is ripe for abuse due to the collaborative nature, there are measures in place that allow for detection and correction of abuse. You can view the entire history of an article, compare versions, and if necessary roll back to earlier variations. While it may not be the only source to consult on any given subject, it sure isn’t bad as a source.


Oh, the beauty of open source. Celestia is a cross-platform simulation of the known universe, and trust me when I say that if you download it (and figure out the controls), you will waste hours with it.

Perhaps I’m just pre-disposed to the subject matter, but even still… the ability to do a solar-system fly-by and observe for yourself the vast scale of this tiny little corner of space we inhabit is mind-blowing. Knowing the numbers simply isn’t enough, until you’re able to proportionately see exactly how large those numbers are.

Skyscraper Page

And on the human scale, the Skyscraper Page is an architectural smorgasbord of a site. With to-scale diagrams of most of the world’s tallest buildings, the breakdown of information available is impressive.

Start by selecting a city from the global list, then from the city page selecting an information view. A list (in order of height) is on the main city page, but those are just numbers. Hit the Buildings Diagram in the left sidebar to give those numbers a sense of perspective. Then go back and hit the Image Gallery to make those diagrams real with photographs.


A long-time favourite, IMDb is similar to Wikipedia, though far more focused and not a collaborative effort. Explore the world of Hollywood, cross-referenced and as detailed as you could possibly want.

Start with a movie detail page, then work your way through the film’s trivia, mistakes, box office take, and then do it all over again for each actor that was in the movie.


Basically IMDb for music, has everything you could possibly want to know about an artist, their releases, who they played with and more. Lyrics have yet to find their way on the site, but I’d imagine that to be a monumental undertaking.

Reader Comments

October 19, 01h

Dave, Everything2 — — has also been a time-wasting vortex for me in the past…along the lines of Wikipedia with the cross-linkage, but with more of a fiction/creative writing bent. I used to waste so much time there that I just unsubscribed from their feeds. Seems there’s too much information to consume sometimes that surfing is more of a luxury than ever.

October 19, 01h

Great article!
I especially love the SkyscraperPage site. I’ve found many pictures of the city I was born and raised but haven’t been back to in 6 years (Europe).


teli says:
October 19, 01h

Hi Dave :),
I’m one of your quiet readers, but after reading this post I had to comment and say thank you…

I absolutely love the stars, universe, everything in the galaxies…so the resource you posted on celestia is amazing and I think you’re right about that whole “wasting hours” comment. Also, love the resource on allmusic too.

You’ve made my day (or what is left of it)…

Ethan says:
October 19, 01h

Goodness, Dave. Thanks so much for the Celestia link. Granted, my afternoon productivity’s officially screwed, but…ooh, shiny.

October 19, 01h

Along the lines of Celestia, but looking from the outside in, is NASA’s WorldWind ( Even without LandSat7 data (the current server cannot handle the load) the United States is well covered by USGS satellite and aerial photography data. Once the LandSat7 data comes back online, the whole world will be available in 15 m resolution. You’ll be able to combine that with SRTM (Shuttle Radar Tomography Mission) data for a 3-D look at the Earth’s surface.

Yep, it’s free (as in beer). Unfortunately for some, it’s Windows-only.

October 19, 01h

There is also a watered-down version of Wikipedia called the Fact Index ( It has all the same content as Wikipedia, but all articles have no styling.

October 19, 02h

Wikipedia is awesome, checkout some of the entries on political candidates… quite interesting. I’ll have to download Celestia and play with that, I hope I will be able to get work done tonight :).

And I don’t mean to be cynical, but how long do you all think that skyscraper site will be around before it will be taken down do “the terrorists!”. I can just see the neo-cons going nuts when they see it.

Pascal says:
October 19, 02h

Celestia just made my day…errrr night!


October 19, 02h

I’ve got to agree on wikipedia. I usually go there to check something, and find myself just… surfing. Not a good source to go to if you have to get something done. :P

Celestia was awesome! Thanks for the link. Another our I should have spent studying for my physics test, but as Ethan so eloquently put it; ooh, shiny.

J. J. says:
October 19, 02h

Thanks to all for posting a couple that I hadn’t heard of. I love maps, too - specifically check out and as extensive map and flag sites. I’m compiled my own Reference links (definitely needs to be updated when I get a chance):

Brade says:
October 19, 03h

Dave, you’d probably like

Following the theme of your “all-in-one source” links, try for everything you’d want or need concerning vehicles. rocks as well.

Meredith says:
October 19, 06h

I’m absolutely obsessed with! I DJ a radio show, and it helps me out sooooooo much every week. I hate just having to google (though I find it interesting that the word “google” has become a verb).

And, speaking of my radio show, I was actually able to tell my listeners just what riot grrl was, how it got started, and the frontrunners of the movement, by surfing Wikipedia (and you’re right, I stayed for hours)!

I’d heard of most of these, but not Celestia. I will definitely be checking it out.

Thanks for all the linkage.

October 19, 11h

Hey there Dave,

some great time-wasting sites. One I had sent to me just yesterday was - - and it destroyed my whole moening.

great to see you at WE04 btw.

A bientot,

Lee says:
October 19, 11h

— If I could sum up what makes me truly happy in a single phrase, it would be this: the pursuit of knowledge.

I couldn’t agree more, I love finding out new stuff, I am constantly amazed, intrigued, humbled and awed by news stories and tidbits I pick up when travelling the net and other media. I’m a facts man too, I love seeing my friends and having a new fact or statistic to amaze them with (they’re probably bored crapless by it, but they let me drone on).

October 20, 01h

Yeah, I’m with Dave - I’m surprised the FBI/CIA/NSA/RIAA hasn’t swooped down on the skyscraper page in a blaze of patriotic homeland defence.

Trovster says:
October 20, 02h

IMDB is great. After sitting through a film and thinking I know that guy from somehwere, instead of being really annoyed until it pops into your head, you just reference the movie, and cross reference the actors! It’s really suprising who’s actually been in what, and where you recognise people from, especially if it’s just from some small part in a one-off TV show. (which also reminds you of your favourite childhood TV shows, so you can reminisce.) Checking out the directors and writers also flags up a few people to watch out for, that appear time and again on movies I’d enjoyed.

Derek says:
October 20, 12h

Probably the main reason that Allmusic doesn’t have lyrics is that, like recordings and sheet music, lyrics are copyrighted (except for public domain works, of course), and so you can’t publish them without permission. Look closely at a CD’s or record’s liner notes that includes lyrics, and you’ll see the phrase “Lyrics reprinted by permission of [Rights Holder]” — even for the artist’s own work that’s on that album!

That’s also the reason why lyrics for cover versions often mysteriously don’t appear in liner notes where lyrics for the artist’s original songs do — because permission either wasn’t obtained or wasn’t sought to reprint the other writer’s lyrics.

As I understand it, one weird quirk of current copyright laws is that you can do a cover version of anyone’s song without having to ask first, as long as you pay the appropriate royalty agency, but you can’t reproduce another recording of the song, or sample it, or reprint the lyrics or sheet music, without actively obtaining permission.

Strange, hm? Anyway, there’s an explanation for you. Usual caveats: I’m not an IP lawyer or anything, just a musician.

Jeremy says:
October 21, 01h

Now that you’ve said it, I also have gone to wikipedia for hours and just surfed the web. I can’t say I’ve done that in a very, very long time. It’s great to be able to do that though. :)

I’ll be using this AllMusic service now. :)

Stefan says:
October 21, 05h

Probably not suitable for “time-wasting surfing” :-) but if you’re into TV series, you should check out an
They are /the/ IMDB of TV series!

Stefan says:
October 21, 06h

Me again: The SkyscraperPage remembers me on something… Starship Dimensions!
While googeling after that page I found also a smaller one:
Have fun!

Dave says:
October 25, 07h

Another good site for information about bands is
That site includes family trees for the bands showing what bands each member has also played in.

Joe says:
October 25, 09h

I use all the sites listed in your entry as well, well except from Celestia, but maybe I should take it for a spin. Concerning lyrics, try out They may not have any lyric sheet you could wish for, but it’s a good start.

November 04, 10h

I’ve wasted many hours myself on IMDb, mainly in the Trivia section. Your comment on exploration is what caught my attention tho - at my day job I’m a GIS Analyst at a mapping company. If you’re looking to ‘virutally explore’, check out our online satellite imagery webserver containing satellite imagery of pretty much anywhere on the entire planet. (Unfortunately, only IE and Netscape compatible at this point due to server-side software limitations - arrrgh!)

Matt Cook says:
November 15, 03h

Originally, IMDB was open and free. This was back in the days when DOS ruled. Then the internet became popular, and it wasn’t.

November 17, 02h

Thanks for the Celestia link! That’s sweet.

Great… and I got a paper to write, a presentation to do, and a few other paper’s to write… not to mention some studying.

Thanks for killing college ;-)